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"Always Out Front"

By Jim Turner


During the night of January 31, 1968, a Villa in Hue occupied by the 135th MI Group regional team came under attack.   The shelling awakened Sergeant Donald Rander, assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Hue Regional Headquarters.   Grabbing flak jackets and weapons, the members grouped on the second floor.  They remained there for the rest of the night under intense enemy fire; occasionally going downstairs to destroy classified documents. 


At dawn, low on ammunition and under intense fire, they left their building and fought their way to the building next door occupied by civilian employees of the US Defense Department.  Throughout the day and into the night, they were under constant attack from the North Vietnamese Regulars.  During the fighting, 24 year old Corporal Barry Wolk  from Hingham, Massachusetts was killed by enemy fire. 


"It was like Custer's last stand," Sergeant Rander later recalled.  "All the North Vietnamese in the world seemed to be outside the door."


Low on ammunition and little chance of further resistance, the group surrendered on February 1, 1968.  Captured were Captain Theodore Gostas, Sergeants Robert Hayhurst, Edward Dierling and Donald Rander.


The men were dragged through the streets, dodging the fighting to the Villa of Foreign Service Officer Philip Manhard.  Manhard and some employees of the Construction Company Pacific Architects and Engineers had already been captured.  The NVA stuffed all the captured men into a shower stall for the night.


During their stay here, the Military Intelligence personnel put together a cover story to explain their civilian clothing and identification.  They agreed to tell the NVA that they were civilians conducting personnel security investigations on Vietnamese applying for jobs with the US Government.  The cover story seemed to work.


The POW's were taken to a POW camp near Phu Bai nicknamed "Camp Runamuck 1."  There they encountered CIA agent Eugene Weaver who had been captured in Hue.  Weaver blew his cover when a Viet Cong recognized him from a previous interrogation.  Treatment of CIA agents was brutal, as Weaver would soon learn.


The POW's remained at this camp for two weeks.  The camp was located in a dense jungle mountain area.  They were shoved into a 20' x 30' long bunker.  There were 20 POW's in this dark and dirty hole.  It was so small that they had to take turns sleeping. During their stay, they received meager rations of dirt-laden rice.


On February 19, the Military Intelligence Personnel and others departed this camp.  Captain Gostas was left behind, because he was too ill to travel.  Gostas later left this camp on March 10 and rejoined his comrades in North Vietnam in April.  Sergeant’s Rander, Hayhurst and Dierling began their trek to North Vietnam by foot.  They were barefoot, walking through mud and sharp rocks.  They were being tracked by a tiger and encountered leeches throughout the journey.  They slept on the ground without blankets in the rain.  They were traveling a narrow twisting trail when Hayhurst and Dierling seized an opportunity to escape.  On February 23, the two slipped away unnoticed and backtracked until they found a stream and a road that they followed back until they found a Marine Artillery camp.  


Sergeant Rander and the others proceeded under tighter security to a camp nicknamed "Runamuck 2."  He arrived there in early March.  Rander was suffering from badly bruised and blooded feet.


In April, Rander and Gostas were reunited at a POW camp called Bao Cao, in North Vietnam.  Rander and Gostas cover was still holding up as they were housed in an area called Duc's Camp with the other civilian prisoners.  The cells consisted of sturdy timber walls and thatched roofs and each building about 30 feet long.  Each building contained cells 3 feet wide, 6 feet high and 6 feet long.  The prisoners were treated harshly with meager rations and unhealthy living conditions. 


Now that the POW's were in North Vietnam, any hope that they may be rescued was long gone. 


Sergeant Rander, with his cover story as a civilian unraveling, was interrogated repeatedly and forced to stand or kneel at attention for hours on end.  Rander had kept his story going by glancing at the notes on his interrogator's tables, which he read upside down, a talent; he acquired as a kid riding the New York subways.  Anxious to keep secret his knowledge of classified operations in the South, the sergeant let his interrogator draw unclassified information out of him slowly, and lying and fabricating names whenever he thought he could get away with it.  When asked about Commanders, he used names from the roster of the 1951 Dodgers.  He used infielders for officers and outfielders for NCOs.  But his interrogator was skillful and Rander paid the price in brutal treatment.  During interrogations, Rander, an African American, used the NVA's own propaganda to help conceal the information he possessed. Rander told them,  "Don't you realize that I'm just a black soldier the white man don't tell me nothing?”  " The white guys go out and do all that important stuff.  They wouldn't let me do anything like that."


On July 3, Sergeant Rander and Captain Gostas were moved farther north to a prison named "Skid Row."  Skid Row was named for its filth and disrepair.  It was located a few miles south of Hanoi.  The walls were concrete, peeling paint, broken plaster and strewn rubbish, wood slatted beds and a bucket for a toilet.  This camp was so harsh, that later it was used as a punishment camp.


During his captivity, Captain Gostas was hung from a rope for extended periods and was denied water.  He was severely beaten several times, kicked in the head and stomach and struck in the head with an AK 47 rifle.  Captain Gostas had severe intestinal problems and numerous abscessed teeth during his captivity.


Sergeant Rander and Captain Gostas remained at Skid Row until the end of 1971.  They were then trucked 50 miles to the north of Hanoi to a camp called "K-49" or "Mountain Camp."  They were then kept in isolation for most of 1972.    Some POW's considered this camp an improvement over Skid Row.  Despite their isolation, each room had a table, stool, and water closet.  It also had a straw mattress.  CIA Agent Gene Weaver was also transferred to this camp and was released from captivity on March 16, 1973.


On November 1, 1972, the Prisoners got an indication that the Vietnam War may be coming to an end.  The POW's were allowed to eat and talk together.  The food improved and they also started medical treatment for the POW's.


In late January 1973, Gostas and Rander were transferred to "New Guy Village" at the Hanoi Hilton Prison Camp.  The NVA began to "fatten up" the POWs with increased rations to hide the barbarous treatment they had endured.


Even to the end, the NVA continually exposed the POWs to propaganda and anti-war activists that traveled to North Vietnam. 


As they began to release POWs, Captain Gostas was scheduled to be released in the last increment of returnees.  Colonel Purcell, a fellow POW of Gostas, covertly passed a note to US officials to inform them that Gostas was in dire need of medical care.  As a result, he left with the next group, March 16, 1973.   Sergeant Rander was released March 23, 1973.


Captain Gostas was awarded the Bronze Star, 2 purple hearts and the POW medal.  He wrote and illustrated a book titled "Prisoner" in 1974.  Major Gostas is now retired and lives in Wyoming. 


Sergeant Rander retired from the US Army as a CWO 4.


These brave Intelligence professionals endured torture, abuse and life threatening medical problems.  But through it all, they remained true to their oath and obligations to their Country.  They possessed valuable classified information, but they never revealed it.  Quick thinking, perseverance, dedication to duty, allowed these men to survive this hellish existence.